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The Art of Influence:
Asian Propaganda

30 May – 1 September 2013
Free, Room 91

For thousands of years, rulers have used propaganda to promote their authority, build support for wars and strengthen control over their states. However, propaganda may also come from the grass roots—individuals or organizations expressing patriotism or resistance.

The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda explores both state-sponsored, or ‘top-down’ propaganda, and bottom-up propaganda in a number of Asian countries, including China, India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, during the tumultuous years from 1900 to 1976. The British Museum has extraordinarily rich collections of this material - much of which has been recently acquired - many items within this exhibition have never been displayed or published before.

The exhibition explores the different sides and the many complexities associated with propaganda, which is fundamentally a tool to create involvement and is an essential part of nation-building, political culture and participation, particularly in times of war and revolution. Propaganda is bold and direct, employing revolutionary motifs or traditional symbolism to communicate political messages on prints and posters, textiles, sculptures, banknotes, plates and other everyday items. The propaganda in the exhibition is highly visual as in some Asian societies, literacy rates were low and imagery had far more impact than text.

The exhibition begins by looking at two important events, the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, which influenced many of the political movements of the 20th century, and are shown as revolutionary inspirations. The exhibition will focus on two contrasting versions of a single event - the decisive battle of China’s Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900), where both the Chinese and Japanese popular prints show their side ‘winning’, to demonstrate how propaganda is manipulated by opposing sides.

The period from 1900 to 1930 highlights themes of modernization, nationalism and anti-colonialism. This is followed by an exploration of the long Asia-Pacific War, from 1931 through 1945. China was controlled by three contending parties during the War years: the Nationalist (GMD or KMT) government, led by Chiang Kai-shek (so-called “free” China); the expanding bases under Communist control (the “liberated” areas); and the Northeast and coastal cities under Japanese occupation. The British Museum is one of very few institutions with material from all three areas. Unlike the UK, for example, where World War II propaganda was overwhelmingly single-minded--patriotic and anti-Fascist-- the messages produced in China were mixed and often divisive. The Nationalists and Communists spent time fighting each other, as well as the foreign enemy, Japan. Examples displayed here include prints and cartoons to support the resistance, and promoting social reforms.

The exhibition showcases several specific propaganda devices and techniques. Governments often use traditional formats to convey a revolutionary message such as a Japanese “paper theatre” (kami-shibai) illustrating a well-loved folktale about a rats’ wedding reinforcing policies of wartime thrift; a Chinese New Year calendar print promoting the new marriage law in the People’s Republic; or an Indian story scroll documenting the life of Indira Gandhi.

Propaganda permeated daily life, both government-sponsored and oppositional. Banknotes circulate messages of authority in every country, and several are included here. Small ceramic figures of Indian national heroes, including Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri, were placed on domestic shelves and mantels. A 1920 Chinese teapot calls for citizens to uphold a boycott of foreign goods. A cigarette lighter from South Korea celebrates a military victory in 1967, but one belonging to a serviceman in Vietnam a few years later privately protests the unpopular war.

The exhibition ends in the year 1976. It is around this time that political art begins to change in Asia with the death of Mao Zedong, the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the formal re-unification of Vietnam. In many ways these events can be seen as the end of the ideological extremes that marked the 20th century and subsequent shift in the political landscape.

Mary Ginsberg, Curator

‘Art is potentially an agent of change everywhere. It reflects and is shaped by the political, social and economic circumstances of its production. The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda attempts to contextualize the propaganda art of many societies in the throes of war and rapid change.’

Nguyen Cong Do (b. 1930), original artwork for poster Tat Ca Vi Hoa Binh (All for the sake of Peace) (detail). Gouache on paper, 1972

Notes to editors

Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.

An accompanying publication is available by British Museum Press: The art of influence Asian Propaganda by Mary Ginsberg.

A full public programme of lectures, workshops and events will run concurrent with the exhibition. Further details from the press office or britishmuseum.org

For further information or images please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8394 / 8583 or communications@britishmuseum.org